- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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I always tell you guys that Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett isn't going anywhere, is not on the hot seat, is likely to be back next year, yada, yada, yada. And you guys always tell me I don't know what I'm talking about because Jerry Jones is a nutcase who's liable to change his mind based on which way the wind is blowing or which well-known coach with a Super Bowl ring is making noise about wanting a new job.
You may be right. I may be wrong. Wouldn't be the first time for either. But I wouldn't keep writing it if I didn't think it were true. And I think what's going on in Dallas, where the Cowboys have won four of their last five games to move into playoff contention with three weeks to go, offers a lot of support for that belief. The public perception of Jones as impetuous and hot-tempered is, at best, outdated. Jones is preaching patience with his team and his young coach. And there are at least three specific examples of what's going on in Dallas that should serve as encouragement for a guy who's trying really hard to be patient:
1. Dez Bryant. It tells you everything you need to know about our society that waiting until a guy's third year for him to break out is now considered "being patient." But Bryant didn't make it easy. A ballyhooed first-round pick in 2010, Bryant spent his first couple of years frustrating the Cowboys on the field and making too much news off the field for getting kicked out of shopping malls, ticking off Deion Sanders and, most famously and seriously this summer, getting arrested on family violence charges after a dispute with his mother. But the Cowboys insisted they'd stand behind Bryant, banking on the belief that his considerable talent would pay off if they supported him as much as they could. The temptation to just get him out of their lives must have been great, but Jones and the Cowboys' coaching staff and administration instead expressed nothing but support for Bryant, instituting a set of off-field guidelines designed to help him stay out of trouble.
Bryant, for the past five weeks, has been arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. In the Cowboys' last five games (of which they have won four), Bryant has 33 catches for 525 yards and seven touchdowns. For the season, he ranks 10th in the league in receptions (75) and receiving yards (1,028) and is tied for third with nine receiving touchdowns, one behind only Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. Those who questioned why Jones was sticking with Bryant after this summer's mess have their answer, and Jones has a significant bit of proof that patience can pay off.
2. Anthony Spencer. A disappointing 2011 season left Cowboys fans sick of Spencer, who simply wasn't supplying the pass-rush complement to DeMarcus Ware that the Cowboys' defense needed from him. The Cowboys themselves believed this, and they surveyed the offseason market for pass-rushers. But they didn't find much, in free agency or in the draft, and since they liked Spencer personally and believed he was making a quiet but significant contribution to their run defense in spite of his low sack totals, they decided to stick with him. They didn't give him the long-term deal he sought, but they did designate him as their franchise player, paying him a tidy $8.865 million this year and telling him to prove he deserved the longer commitment.
Spencer has been one of the best players on the Cowboys' defense. Pro Football Focus has him as the highest-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in the league this year with a grade of 26.3. And while the bulk of that grade is his 20.5 against the run (Baltimore's Courtney Upshaw ranks a distant third at 11.0), Spencer also grades out as the No. 7 pass-rush linebacker among his 3-4 peers. His 8.5 sacks are already a career high. Whether he gets that long-term deal this offseason or has to take another franchise season, Spencer has proven that the Cowboys were right to stick with him and expect his production to improve.
3. Garrett. The Cowboys' third-year head coach is being hailed for his professionalism and leadership in the wake of Saturday's drunk-driving tragedy that left defensive lineman Jerry Brown dead and fellow defensive lineman Josh Brent charged with intoxication manslaughter. He set the right emotional tone for the team Saturday night and Sunday, and in the meantime he coached a heck of a game. I even have fans on Twitter today lauding him for his... gasp... clock management late in the game.
Garrett had no head coaching experience at any level when he was promoted to the job midway through the 2010 season. His record as a head coach is 20-17. Though he has been learning on the job, and in-game flaws have shone through as a result, Garrett has drawn no criticism, anonymous or otherwise, inside the Cowboys' building. Jones is routinely supportive. Players like the guy and play hard for him. He may appear robotic in news conferences, but he comes by that honestly -- openly admitting he's offering nothing more than sound bites in public because that's the way he believes it's best to use that forum. Behind closed doors, he's shown passion and leadership and has the support and respect of his players. That tells you a lot about a coach. If you're the team's owner, it tells you everything about why you should be patient with a young coach as he learns things like clock management and how to get the play in more quickly.
As I've written many times here, these Cowboys are in the process of building something, and Garrett is a part of that process. They have put themselves in a position from which they may yet be able to to make the playoffs in a year in which that didn't realistically feel like part of the long-range plan. And if they do that, it will only help the development of the program they're trying to put in place. But I think the point here for Cowboys fans is that the way you look at this team needs a bit of recalibration.
There's more good than bad going on in Dallas. This team has major flaws and not a lot of depth, but it's got some very good players and it appears to have strong character and solid leadership. It can handle adversity of the common (injuries) and uncommon (Saturday's tragedy) type. It can shrug off outside criticism and maintain self-belief. And whether it ultimately grows into what Garrett and Jones hope it will become or fizzles before it can get there, there seems little reason from where we sit right now for Cowboys fans not to be patient with this team, and kind of proud of what it's doing.